Austrian Early Modern composer Arnold Schoenberg [1874–1951] wrote four string quartets, and one student work. I have previously discussed the First Quartet, from 1907.

Lately I’ve been listening to a lot of atonal and serial music and I came across the Juilliard Quartet version of the composer’s Third Quartet from a performance in 1954. This is available on the Juilliard School of Music website here. It starts at 28:53 into the recording, following on from a Mozart quartet. I realised that here was the sound of many of the modern string quartets that I have constantly encountered in the last few years. The Third Quartet was Schoenberg’s first without a key signature, giving priority to no one single tone and making it an early example of serial music. Comprehensive discussions of the above terms can be found all over the internet.

The quartet, written in 1927, begins in a pensive mood with dissonant violin lines over a motivic background, and low cello groanings – this is hectic music. A change to a more considered passage is wonderfully abstract as a sense of entropy between the instruments prevails. Now a flurry of pizzicato lines express over further frantic cello musings. The tempo and intensity vary continually, at times only a violin and cello can be heard. Mostly however it maintains a feeling of tonal uncertainty and a mysterious presence. It comes as no surprise that there are no coherent, harmonised melodic lines in this piece, but I find it to be enthralling. A softer section, which sounds for all the world like an end, is purely an interlude, and soon returns to some energised playing. The end comes as a complex atonally harmonised short chordal flourish.

The next movement commences with a slow, lamenting sound scape, played rubato. It soon moves in and out of tempo and the full range of Schoenberg’s tonal conception is heard. Seemingly random lines, and sometimes chordal sections are a highlight for me, even though, in essence the music defies description. A violin moves to the forefront, and a bustling pizzicato section is brief. Further lamenting sounds give way to an intense passage, however, we are soon back into the characteristic sparsity of this movement, which is maintained to a gentle finish.

The third movement again expresses the inexpressible as the ensemble joust their way forward. Sparsity gives way to complexity but in a non-confronting manner, to me at least. Two violin lines are carried by a steady cello and the tempo changes regularly. Having said that, you can’t really determine the tempo, just that it is slow, and faster, at various times. The ending comes as a bit of a surprise, unannounced.

The final movement jumps straight into intense abstraction – of the five senses, you can only hear it. I have previously expressed my belief that everyone reacts to a piece of music differently – I’d say that this work is a concrete example of the essentially abstract nature of music. It continues to burble along, never seeming to drop anchor, either rhythmically or melodically. The conclusion is a fascinating excerpt which gradually slows to a standstill.

This whole quartet is of a serious nature, even through its manifold variations and it is a long way from the composer’s String Quartet No. 1 – Opus 7, which I feel is a very approachable and charming, albeit dissonant work. Tonal, but still mysterious. I must confess to finding the Third Quartet very difficult to describe – it’s just that kind of music. However, the work does not contain the agitation or harsh quality that is sometimes found in the Modernist quartets of later composers that were blatantly influenced by Schoenberg. I find it to be totally non-confronting, just unintelligible.

Given that I am a what kind of person, not a how person, I include this quote from Schoenberg, addressed to his brother-in-law, prominent violinist Rudolf Kolisch:

You have rightly worked out the (tone) rows in my string quartet […] You must have gone to a great deal of trouble, and I don’t think I’d have had the patience to do it. But do you think one’s any better off for knowing it? I can’t quite imagine it. […] I can’t utter too many warnings against overrating these analyses, since after all they only lead to what I have always been dead against: seeing how it is done; whereas I have always helped people to see: what it is!”

I have the work on three complete sets – by the La Salle, Juilliard and Schoenberg Quartets. It is however freely available from Amazon US and UK on a single CD. One such disc has it paired with the Fourth Quartet by the Fred Sherry Quartet on the Naxos label.

There are several versions on Spotify, five recordings on earsense and many on YouTube.

Listenability: You won’t know where it all started if you don’t hear it.


2 thoughts on “ARNOLD SCHOENBERG – A Revelation”

  1. Thanks, Steve.

    It ‘s been a while since I last heard it but really got into it. It definitely points to the future – those Juilliard live performances really hit the spot.

    And you keep up the good work 🙂


  2. Great review, John!

    The Third is sort of a Cinderella among the Schoenberg quartets, always overlooked and dismissed. It came just after his first blast of twelve-tone activity, and may not be quite as visionary as the delirious Serenade op. 24, the neo-Baroque Piano Suite op. 25, or the reedy Suite op. 29. It’s certainly not in a league with the Variations for Orchestra op.31.

    However, I’ve always found a lot to enjoy in this austere work. The second movement in particular is one of the most memorable of old Arnold’s creations for me, a set of variations that start out poignant and go everywhere from ominous to jaunty. This movement has always typified a very human and emotional approach to the avant-garde. And Schoenberg always includes a few dances in his variations, at least more light-hearted ones than the bitter, condescending dances that Shostakovich put in his quartets.

    Keep up the good work!


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